Video games are undeniably a great way to relax, escape reality, and have fun, but they’re also a double-edged sword. Under certain circumstances, playing video games can easily turn from a fun and light-hearted activity into a problematic behavior that leads to irritability, addiction, and social isolation. So what’s the best way to navigate this slippery slope? Is there a way to enjoy all the mental health benefits of gambling while avoiding the pitfalls?
For advice, we contacted Dr Kelli Dunlap, clinical psychologist, game designer and educator with a passion for all things play and mental health. Here are some tips and tricks that will help you ensure that gambling benefits your mental, emotional and social well-being.
Digital trends: Most conversations about “positive” games revolve around the “right” kinds of games – for example, tame and cute games like Stardew Valley Where Mario Kart. But what if you don’t like these types of games? And if you like fighting games, shooting games or survival-horror? If you enjoy playing games with rivalry, gore, violence, etc., what can you do to ensure you get positive mental health benefits from this type of environment?
Dr. Dunlap: That’s the wonderful thing about games, there are almost limitless possibilities to choose from. Our mental health benefits the most when we are engaged in something we enjoy or find meaningful. If you like planting crops, great. If you like explosions, this is great too. Playing games is about dealing with those parts of yourself that recharge your batteries and there is no one game or game genre that is right for everyone. As my mother always says, “do what makes your heart happy”.
Is there one type or genre of gambling that provides more mental health benefits than others? Likewise, are certain types of games better for specific age groups? For example, puzzle games for the elderly?
No one game or type of game will benefit everyone. Looking at games to provide mental health benefits is a bit like a doctor writing a prescription. You need to know the person, their history and needs, as well as their interests and abilities. It may help to think of the mental benefits of gambling as psychological weightlifting. Want to work on your creative problem solving? Try a puzzle game! Is the world stressful and out of control? Try a simulation game, like The Simsto bring a sense of peace and control.
With many games explicitly designed to keep us hooked and in the game, playing into the brain’s natural reward system to ensure we keep playing for as long as possible, how can we avoid addictive behaviors? What steps can we take when the game we play is designed for addiction?
Some games use “dark design patterns,” a style of design that exploits vulnerabilities in our processing of information, social relationships, and emotions. Celia Hodent did a brilliant job in this area. As for what players can do, the easiest answer is to check with yourself and make sure you’re still to profit from What do you do. Gambling can be a deeply engaging activity and, from the outside, it can be very difficult to tell the difference between high engagement and problem gambling.
But one of the main differences is that engagement makes us feel “The Good Feels,” things like a sense of accomplishment or relaxation. A sign of problematic gameplay is that the game is no longer enjoyable – it feels like work, or a chore, or if you don’t log in, something bad will happen (e.g. lost progress, a missed opportunity, let others down). Sometimes games are frustrating and there can be a feeling of drudgery or drudgery, but if that’s the bulk of your experience, it’s probably a good idea to reassess your relationship with the game.
In order to get the most out of gaming for mental health, is there an optimal gaming session length that we should aim for? We’ve heard a lot about the negative effects of gaming in the media for too long and too often. Do we continue to reap the same positive mental health benefits from long gaming sessions, or is it better to keep it short and sweet?
There is no single prescription for time spent gambling. A recent study by the Royal Society basically says that time spent playing doesn’t matter. Typically it is Why you play who counts, not for how long.
Are you playing because you’re having fun, hanging out with friends, saving the world, or proving your skills? Or are you playing because you feel the need to, because you need to level up, or because the raid team is counting on you? Playing for fun, excitement, relaxation and connection is a way to meet our basic needs. But if we play out of obligation – play feels like a job or a chore – then it’s time to re-evaluate our relationship with play.”
In the era of online MMORPGs, cooperative shooters, battle royale games and virtual reality, how can we protect our sanity when playing online cooperatively with strangers? Do these games offer different benefits or risks to our mental health?
I’ve made some amazing friendships through online gaming. Some I have had the opportunity to meet in person at conventions or events, and others I only know by the sound of their voices. Online friendships are “real” friendships, despite what many headlines may tell you. However, most people, when playing online on social networks, play with people they already know. Kind of like a club. And, like in a club, it’s not really about the game or the activity itself, but rather the culture and social norms within that club.
For example, some gaming communities are incredibly toxic while others are pretty darn healthy. Protecting your sanity would mean considering the tone and culture of a game’s community and, if that community has some toxicity, taking steps to protect yourself. For example, I’m a huge fan of Halo and love playing online multiplayer. However, I remain in a group chat (private voice chat) with my friends while I play and do not interact with “randoms” on my team or the other team. I wish I didn’t have to take extra steps, but it minimizes the likelihood of being harassed or abused while still allowing me to hang out with my friends.
What if you already have mental health issues such as depression or anxiety? Can the game help? Is there a specific type or genre of gambling that, say, an anxious person would most benefit from gambling (and also, gambling genres to avoid)?
Games are not a substitute for mental health treatment, but they can be a tool for recovering from or managing mental health issues. Many people use games to help them deal with difficult situations or times in their lives, which includes dealing with psychological issues such as depression and anxiety. There are countless personal stories from gamers of how games have helped them by giving them something to look forward to, [making them] feel connected to others, or [allowing] whether they feel in control or competent.
The type of games that produce these benefits are deeply individualized and personal. Some people with depression prefer games that allow them to escape, to exist somewhere where depression cannot reach them. Others might enjoy playing games about depression or depressive themes, as it helps them feel validated to hear and have their experience acknowledged. Similarly, someone with anxiety may avoid horror games (like me!), while others may enjoy horror games because those games produce a kind of anxiety that they control.
Many parents do not allow their children to play violent, gory, or scary games because they fear it will harm their mental health. Is there actually any evidence to support this? Could these types of games have their own advantages or merits?
Research on violent video games has repeatedly found that there is no relationship between violent video gaming and violent behavior. Playing violent video games does not cause someone to act violently. There is, however, something to be said for the developmental relevance of a game. For example, I don’t let my 6-year-old son play Call of Duty – not because I fear violent play will cause behavior violent, but because it’s not appropriate content for a 6-year-old.
I also don’t let my 6 year old see R-rated movies or watch adult-rated TV shows. Being exposed to content that is not suitable for development, regardless of medium, can have negative impacts. If a parent thinks their child is not ready for a particular type of game, this is a great opportunity for parent and child to sit down and have a conversation about play, maturity and security.
With your years of experience as a clinical psychologist and game designer, what would be your top five tips for improving mental health through gaming, considering the above and anything else you think is important?
- Make sure you have a good time! I used to play competitively and it got to the point where I was burnt out, exhausted and didn’t like playing anymore. If you’re not getting what you want from your game (eg relaxation, hanging out with friends, feeling of accomplishment), take a second to reflect and re-evaluate.
- Have a varied play diet. I like to try new games and different types of games. Video games, board games, card games, role-playing games… there is so much to discover.
- If you are a parent, play with your kid. My crew does Pokemon Go together as a way out of the house. We also play Sonic and Mario and other games that my 6 year old can play, and it’s a great way to bond as a family, as well as teach things like perseverance (it’s OK, kid, try again!), teamwork, and creativity.
- It’s OK to like what you like, even if no one else does. The game has some issues with access control around terms like “casual gamer” or “hardcore gamer”, signaling that some games aren’t REAL games. Play what you like and ignore the enemies.
- Make time for play in your life. Just because we get older doesn’t mean we lose our need for games and recreation. Your value doesn’t depend on your productivity, so make time for frivolity, silliness, and playfulness.
Follow Dr. Kelli Dunlap on Twitter for more mental health-focused gaming content.